Relationships can be complicated, and even strong, healthy relationships take work and can, at times, cause stress. So many of us have grown up being taught to prize loyalty, to stick it out when times get tough, and to “make it work.” But what about deal breakers? What happens when you ask yourself, “Am I in a toxic relationship?,” or tell yourself that your wife’s or husband’s “mental illness is killing me.” How much relationship stress caused by toxic traits should you reasonably tolerate, and could sticking it out cause you to suffer mentally, even to suffer a mental breakdown?
Stress comes in many different forms, including short, tall, blond, brunette, etc. Yes, people can be extremely stressful, and toxic relationships are common triggers for substance abuse. Of course, self-medicating is never a good idea no matter the stressor, but feeling driven to drink isn’t the only risk of an unhealthy relationship. Depending on the situation and level of toxicity involved, as well as one’s own capacity for coping with stress, an unhealthy relationship can worsen or even cause mental health issues.
How Do You Determine if a Relationship Is Unhealthy?
Read nearly any self-help magazine and you’re likely to find relationship tests titled along the lines of “Am I in a Toxic Relationship?” On paper, toxicity seems easy enough to diagnose, but in reality, many people don’t even realize that their relationship is not just a little unhealthy but extremely unhealthy. So, how can you gauge a relationship’s health?
First, consider your feelings. How often do you experience negative emotions such as anger, fear, sadness, or loneliness? Try to mentally calculate how often you feel these emotions, as opposed to positive emotions like contentment and joy. If your emotions are heavily on the negative side, it’s important to determine why. Is it you–something you can’t put your finger on? Is it your job? Or, is it your relationship?
Although each relationship is unique, both healthy and unhealthy relationships share certain characteristics. For instance, a healthy relationship involves mutual respect, trust, and peaceable conflict resolution. In contract, an unhealthy or toxic relationship may involve:
- Physical or emotional abuse
There are many drivers of these negative characteristics. One partner may be struggling with a mental health disorder or a substance abuse problem. They may struggle with insecurity because of emotional abuse suffered as a child. They may engage in behaviors that make them untrustworthy.
Of course, it’s still possible to love someone in spite of the negatives, which is why coping with an unhealthy relationship can be so difficult. However, like other forms of stress, relationship stress, especially when chronic, can take a toll on one’s mental and physical health.
What Is a Mental Breakdown?
Sometimes referred to as a nervous breakdown, a mental breakdown is something people often hear about but may not know fully understand. Essentially, a mental breakdown occurs when a person feels mentally and emotionally overwhelmed. Though not an official medical diagnosis, a mental breakdown is often the result of untreated anxiety or depression and is brought on by an overwhelming amount of stress.
This stress may be related to grief, job stress, or, yes, even stress at home caused by an unhealthy relationship. When someone is overwhelmed and feels like they’re suffering a mental breakdown, they may feel hopeless, helpless, and even suicidal. Their emotional breakdown may be so overwhelming that it leaves them feeling debilitated, unable to manage activities of daily living. Symptoms can vary; one person may be unable to stop crying; another may feel completely numb and unable to feel anything.
Can Stress Cause a Mental Breakdown?
A mental breakdown is generally triggered by an intense degree of stress. In fact, the breakdown is an intense reaction to the stress caused by symptoms of anxiety or depression. But what causes anxiety and depression? Some people are genetically predisposed to these conditions–as if they’re hardwired that way. Some people may be vulnerable because of past trauma or because of their high-stress professional or personal life.
When the symptoms of a mental health disturbance are left unchecked and veer into a full-blown mental health condition or disorder, treatment is needed, but many people don’t seek treatment. Their feelings of depression may be unpleasant but manageable. However, as a mental health condition continues, the continued stress it causes can wear a person down until they are left feeling completely overwhelmed.
What Should You Do If a Relationship Is Pushing You to the Breaking Point?
If your relationship is making you feel on edge, as if you are inching closer to feeling overwhelmed, it’s a problem that needs addressing. Keep in mind that when you are under a substantial amount of stress and it’s causing you to experience symptoms of anxiety or depression (or both), you may find it difficult to cope on your own. Asking for help from your doctor or therapist is crucial. You may need counseling or medication for what you are experiencing. You may also benefit from relationship therapy.
For someone feeling overwhelmed, the idea of picking up and leaving a relationship may feel even more overwhelming, but in cases where abuse is involved, that may be the answer. First, consider your personal safety. If you feel unsafe, you should seek safety.
Coping with relationship stress can also depend on the issues at hand. If your partner has a substance abuse issue, are they in treatment? Are they willing to get help or are they in denial? Is your partner cheating on you or are you struggling with your own suspicions or insecurities? Do you feel like you walk on eggshells around your home because your partner is under stress and has an anger management problem?
Many relationship issues can be resolved when both people are determined to face them and work on them. A major reason why chronic relationship stress occurs is because one or both parties are unwilling to address issues and neither has decided to end the relationship for whatever reason–and there are often important reasons (love, kids, financial constraints, etc.). However, the longer a relationship remains unhealthy, the greater the risk that it will continue to take an emotional toll.
Don’t Weaponize Your Mental Health in a Relationship
Some people weaponize their mental health condition in their relationship or weaponize their partner’s mental health. For instance, the term “narcissist” is frequently batted about to describe anyone with whom one has had a bad relationship with. It’s important to distinguish between a toxic relationship and a relationship in which two people just don’t click. Calling a person a narcissist because they have a tendency to want their own way isn’t always fair and could be an example of weaponizing.
Conversely, if you have anxiety or depression, it may not be completely accurate to say that your partner or spouse caused it. Again, relationships, like mental health, are complex. Often, it’s the behavioral patterns of both people that lead to conflict. Moreover, a person may be vulnerable to anxiety or depression and, as such, are more vulnerable to the effects of stress.
When to Seek Outside Help
The best time to ask for help is after a few weeks have gone by and you’re still feeling symptoms of anxiety or depression. When you’re feeling stressed out more often than you feel content, it’s important to seek an evaluation. When you seek help from a therapist or counselor, they’ll help you identify exactly what’s causing your stress and help you develop strategies for coping with it. Once you get help and begin to feel better, you may feel more capable of coping with your relationship issues.
On the other hand, your relationship may be so unhealthy that making changes is in your best interest, and there again, a counselor can help you develop a plan for working things out in your relationship or ending it. In any case, expect your therapist or doctor to empower you to make your own healthy decisions, choosing what’s best for you. If your relationship is making you feel worse on a regular basis, talk to a professional and get some advice. You don’t have to do it alone.